THE SOCIAL NETWORK .0The twain can (and do) coexist, but only one is bound to be accurate

When television news took the media industry by storm, there were initial doubts about the electronic and print media coexisting. There were those cartoons (oops, that’s a bad word today!) and one-liners: “Today’s TV bulletin is tomorrow’s newspaper front page.” Time has been the best ‘feeler’! Today, if a TV report is like an FIR, a newspaper or magazine story is like a chargesheet. One immediate and slightly superficial; the other, more in-depth.

Enter the social media. There is a surfeit of resentment over the mainstream media. Yet, the two have ended up as rather strange bedfellows. They complement each other. And there is no question of one gobbling up the other. While television and print media are convenient and, sometimes, justifiable whipping posts, Facebook and Twitter are an instantaneous source of raw information, not always accurate.

As someone who is active in both worlds, let me give you a classic example. The bus falling off the flyover in Chennai. The story broke first on Twitter. News desks were frantically copying, pasting and mailing tweets from eyewitnesses. And before camera teams and outdoor broadcast vans could weave through the traffic jam and reach the spot, a few Twitter-savvy passersby managed to click pictures of the accident and upload them. But just how accurate were the tweets? The sight of an almost overturned bus and 10 ambulances with blaring sirens is alarming but need not necessarily mean 25 deaths. A smashed parapet wall need not leave a question mark over the structural stability of the flyover. An onlooker’s version about the bus driver clutching a mobile phone need not imply that he was talking on the mobile phone while driving over the flyover. There were tweets that suggested all the above. The only casualty here was accuracy. The Twitterati is accountable to no one, but the mainstream media is accountable to readers, viewers, regulatory bodies and the law of the land.

While the reliability of information in a breaking or evolving news story may be an issue, we just cannot afford to brush aside the collective intelligence of the social media. I’ve come across some of the wittiest comments, the most novel ideas and some great perspectives on this platform.

Not long ago, when I was heading a metro television channel, I had introduced a small segment, ‘Writing On The Wall’, exclusively on Facebook wall posts and tweets. The ratings were quite encouraging. An indication of the quality of content in this space.

Good stuff spreads fast, with either ‘likes’ (yes, the demand for the ‘dislike’ button on Facebook is still alive) or tweets being ‘favourited’ or ‘retweeted’.

A few years ago, a television channel had a show called ‘My News’, where viewers played ‘News Editor’ by ranking stories of their choice. Today, there are programmes based on what is ‘trending’ online. Why, there is even a show called ‘Trending’! Not only has the social media crept into the media mindset, it is now also an inevitable part of news jargon. If there is any part of the mainstream media that must be feeling the heat, it would be the news wires, which incidentally, are now hyperactive on twitter.

Where the social media scores over the mainstream media is in prioritising news. There is no ‘Republic Of South India’ here. No Delhi- or Mumbai-centric slant. All regions are even Stevens. So, on the day of the bus accident, when national channels dropped live reports due to a Rehman Malik press conference and went overboard with discussions on Pakistan and Sania Mirza’s outburst, the only saving grace was Facebook and Twitter. Now you know why I prefaced ‘whipping post’ with ‘justifiable’?